The Holiday Season in Paraguay

In case you didn’t notice, it is now 2017, which means a few things in the context of my Peace Corps service:

  1. I’ve been in Paraguay more than three months, and in site for over one month! …As these things usually do, it feels like forever ago and also only yesterday that I left the U.S.
  2. I’ve now entered what will be my only full calendar year as a volunteer.
  3. I already celebrated my first (and probably last) Christmas and New Years in Paraguay.
  4. I can post this blog entry! (I used all my Wi-Fi data for December trying to watch the new Gilmore Girls… Please PM me to discuss all the happenings in the lives of Lorelei and Rory.)

…I’ll use some of my 6 GB of January data to tell you about winter (well, summer) holidays in the Heart of South America.

The first of these was a month ago: the December 8th holiday for the Virgin of Ca’acupe. On this special day, many people in Paraguay make a pilgrimage to Ca’acupe, walking or biking great distances, often with the hopes of being cured of some ailment. Pilgrimages like this aren’t confined to Ca’acupe; other locations with reports of Virgin Mary sightings or other miracles also draw crowds around this time of year.

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The church/cathedral in Ca’acupe… In November, I visited with my training host family.

My host family went to Ca’acupe last year but stayed in the community this time. We went to the grandparents’ house for lunch and then did some resas, a series of prayers (often the whole rosary) done on a number of important occasions here. On this day, there’s a sort of Catholic version of Trick-or-Treating where instead of shouting “trick-or-treat!” when you arrive at someone’s house, you stand for a bunch of Hail Marys. After two houses and the church, I had baggies full of sweets and other goodies.

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Next was Christmas. Seeing how people here celebrate was interesting and also very tiring. I heard multiple women exclaim that “this Christmas has brought nothing but work!” …For me, it also brought some sort of virus, but I’ll skip the details in that department.

On Christmas Eve, I spent the day at another house peeling things (yucca, onions, and fruit) in preparation for Christmas Day.

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The skin we peeled off a bazillion mandioca (yucca) roots

Later, my host family ate a late dinner outside under the Christmas lights. (If you’re wondering what is eaten for this special Christmas Eve dinner, see my previous blog post for a description of the food served at all parties and special event in Paraguay.)

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Christmas and New Years were no exception to the rule that all the holidays – and most of the non-holiday days – in Paraguay involve pyrotechnics (mostly the ones that create a lot of noise and smoke without much of a light show). On Christmas Eve, I saw some “bombas” that came in a box with a picture of the Virgin Mary.

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my host sister, setting off a bomba: “Look, I’m the Statue of Liberty!”

At midnight on Christmas Eve, everyone kissed, hugged, or shook hands, said felicidades or feliz navidad, and set off more fireworks. Since Christmas is a holiday about children, most of the family then went to pray next to the tomb/grave of a deceased baby – infants are buried in their parents’ yards here. Right after midnight, my family went to bed. Often, people here celebrate and dance until morning, but I was glad we didn’t do so since I was exhausted from a day of peeling, feeling under the weather, and preparing to get up early the next morning to help set up for the Christmas festivities.

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Nativity scenes can be quite elaborate here… and always involve watermelons

In Paraguay, Christmas Eve is the generally the bigger celebration, but my community was preparing for a massive Christmas Day event. Why? Well, in Paraguay (and in many other Catholic countries, I’m sure), each community has a church or chapel, and each church or chapel has a patron saint. Every year on the day associated with that saint, the community celebrates with a procession, mass, and other festivities. The patron saint for the biggest of the chapels in my community is none other than niño Jesus – baby Jesus. His special day is of course December 25th. So, as you can imagine, Christmas around here is sort of a two-for-one special in the celebrating department. The municipality even sent a truck to smooth out the dirt road, which everyone agreed needed smoothing.

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The pavilion being prepared for a Mass with more than a thousand attendees

By the time I got to the futbol field/park at around 7 am on Christmas day, people had been there for almost two hours cooking and decorating. I had been told the morning would be a great time to take pictures to send back to my family and friends in the U.S. (or Germany – the two get confused because of the large German/Mennonite population here). I also tried to be moderately helpful and set up some plastic chairs.

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The hardworking chefs… currently in the chopping things stage

Thousands of people (or over a thousand at least) participated in the festivities. A baby Jesus doll (I don’t think “doll” is the official terminology) was carried to a truck and paraded from one end of the community to the other with a line of cars following behind. Then there was a mass under the big pavilion. (Note: in Catholicism, something is only a mass if there is a priest and the “host” (bread and wine) is served.  Chapels only have visiting priests on special occasions, so not every Sunday gathering is a mass here.)

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A truck with the Baby Jesus doll, a priest, and some kids

Afterwards, enormous quantities of food were consumed (I heard there were 300 kg – over 600 lbs. – of grilled meat alone).

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A man behind me: “pose so she can take a picture to send to her family in Germany”

Next, it was time for the distribution of gifts. People don’t generally exchange gifts for Christmas here, but part of this event involves giving a gift to each child in the community. Since the event’s announcer spoke Guarani, I was a bit confused at first when everyone with a baby stood in a long line and all the older kids stampeded onto the soccer field. The babies got plastic shovel/bucket sets, the boys got soccer balls, and the girls got sparkly pink purses with a lipstick design on them (UGHH).

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Some of the yucca we peeled

Later, there were performances. It started as something like an elementary school talent show and ended with a professional band playing Paraguayan music. A few people danced, and most people sat around talking about whether they would dance (a common party ritual).

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Some kids watching some other kids do a traditional dance

New Year’s Eve also involved some almost-dancing. My host mom’s siblings came from the Asuncion area with their families. In the afternoon, there was a soccer game at the grandparents’ house. The women painted their nails and braided their hair. The volunteer in the community next to mine passed by on her way to a house across the street, and my host mom quickly roped her into getting her nails and hair done as well. Everyone showered and dressed up nicely (white is the color for ushering in a New Year) and then waited around for midnight. The transition to 2017 meant sharing felicidades much like on Christmas Eve, and it meant we could eat (my host sister shouted “finally it’s the dinner hour!”). Afterward, someone brought out some disco lights and a karaoke machine, but we went home before I saw more than one little kid attempt to rap.

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A New Year’s Eve soccer game… if you look closely, you might spot some cows watching from the other side of the street

 

It is difficult to be far from loved ones at this time of year, but I am looking forward to what this New Year will bring. I’ll start working in a school, move into my own house, start gardens, travel, maybe plant trees, and hopefully do a lot of composting.

Back home, this year is going to involve a lot of scary things being said and done by people in positions of power. I can’t do much to fight the battles that need fighting there, but here I’ll try to represent the best of the United States to the best of my abilities, and I’ll make sure to teach about important things such as environmental protection, gender equality, and respecting people’s differences.

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